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Netflix’s new 100-minute documentary, “13th,” conceived and directed by Ava DuVernay, should be required viewing not only for high school civics classes (assuming they still exist) across the nation, but also for everyone else who needs to be reminded that America remains a constitutional promise unfulfilled for our black citizens.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery, but did it in language that has come back to haunt African-Americans in ever more perverse manifestations: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The film spells out the implications of that brief but toxic phrase of exception: punishment for crime. The phrase has rationalized a tragic history that continues to unfold even today—if not more than ever today. As soon as Lincoln decreed the end of slavery in 1865, thousands of freed blacks immediately began to be arrested for petty crimes like vagrancy, and found themselves on chain gangs and in prisons, in a word, back into the state of rampant injustice from which they had so recently been released.
“13th” reviews with painful specificity the history of our nation’s failure to honor its commitments to our African-American citizens between 1865 and today, when we have 2.3 million people in our prisons, more than any other country, a grossly disproportionate number of these prisoners of course being black. Many such prisoners perform involuntary servitude, almost always without meaningful compensation, increasing the profits of many a corporation all too happy to exploit a convenient source of free or nearly free labor. Sounds like slavery all over again to me.
Slavery by other names has been the story in phase after phase of African-American history since the Civil War, almost all of it enabled by the strategic criminalization of blackness. A 2007 statement by our Chief Justice epitomizes the ongoing blindness of white privilege to this story: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Well, yes. But here’s a white man at the very top of the food chain, responsible more than anyone except perhaps our Attorney General for how questions of race and justice interact, and this is the best he can come up with?
Damn all these casually obtuse politicians calculatedly misusing the privilege of their power. Damn the repellent Richard Nixon and his Southern Strategy, who won elections by ranting on about law and order and the silent majority. It was Dr. King, in his trenchant, rarely remembered speech at Riverside Church of 1967, who pointed out the deep connections between racism at home and the moral rot of the dubious wars America was lawlessly conducting abroad. Bless the heroic young Mohammed Ali for saying he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong. Damn the unhinged Donald Trump and his absurd attempts to rebirth the virulent racism of the pre-civil rights era. And damn all those hypocritical politicians too cowardly to cut him loose.
Honest to God, any white person taking an objective look at the history of blacks in this country—brought here forcibly as slaves, bought and sold, families torn apart, exploited in every possible way, women abused and raped, men castrated and hung, boys shot by law enforcement, spiritual and political leaders assassinated by the state, generations of their youth swallowed by the prison-industrial complex, others repeatedly stopped and frisked on the basis of skin color alone—should find it amazing that the African-American community has not risen up in a paroxysm of bloody, frustrated rage and torn this country into small enough pieces to start all over again.
Yes, there have indeed been moments of angry urban riot and anarchy, but it’s almost miraculous that it hasn’t been a hundred times worse, given the endless provocation. Why hasn’t it? Because the rest of the Constitution offered the promise, the ever-hoped-for promise, of real equality, upon which Dr. King quietly, nonviolently insisted (for this insistence he was killed)—and at the same time the promise must seem gallingly ever-receding, ever changing in its excuses for delay and denial.
One liberal explanation for the reason blacks have managed to keep their covenant with our country’s promise is the stereotype of the saintly African-American, soulful, courageous, able to forgive seventy times seven like the daughter of the Charleston women who was one of nine gunned down in church by Dylann Roof. To the extent that African-Americans are not other to whites either by demonization or sanctification, they become people with all the usual flaws and virtues of people.
But black forbearance isn’t merely another stereotype. To endure what black people have had to endure in this country must often have been a choice between going mad with rage and grief or finding some gospel bedrock of love that would be the only creative resistance to ignorance and hate. Not only in my African-American friends and colleagues and the black students I have been privileged to encounter over decades of teaching, but also in the black writers and activists I admire, like Jelani Cobb, Van Jones, Angela Davis, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a certain dignified poise is operative, a combination of wariness and weariness distilled from a collective cultural frustration that shades their orientation toward the white mind-set that they are tired of trying to educate, whether by explicit polemic or implicit example.
Having had a dignified, poised black leader in the White House can only help and has helped. Obama and his extraordinary spouse Michelle have undercut many noxious stereotypes. But, as “13th” demonstrates, this country has a long, long way to go before it can deliver on its promises to all its citizens and call itself truly post-racial, and not split in two by a combination of race and economic disparity, where only one in 17 whites end up in corporate prisons while one in three blacks do. “13th” is a clarion call to all of us, citizens, politicians, police, the justice system, to confront the depths of our original sin as a country and do our part to permanently de-criminalize being black in America.